New Moon Reflection on Venus Genetrix

On the New Moon in Taurus, the time is here for rediscovering the simple, manifest parts of ourselves cradled within the sensory landscape of Nature’s consistency and reliable movements amidst the changes that have engulfed us all during the greater period of Pluto/Jupiter/Saturn stellium bridging Capricorn and Aquarius that signals the uprooting of the institutions whose integrity we took for granted, for the sake of some necessary greater evolution…

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Earth Day 2020 is an enforced observance.

I grew up in the California coastal city where in 1969 following a huge oil spill off the coast, the call began for designating a day to celebrate the Earth as mother divine, and rally advocacy for her survival in the face of human threats. In recent years I have witness the Earth Day festival grow out of grassroots to a showcase of industries supporting the environment: organic food truck dining, permaculture demos, booths administering CBD samples and selling hemp clothing and seaglass jewelry, walk-throughs of tiny houses and displays of what green living looks like in the 21st century, Teslas on display, representatives from local environmental groups educating the public and collecting petition signatures, and the alcoholic kombucha tents and stages with bands seeking to raise the public consciousness and appreciation of Our Mother.

This year I understood that these reminders of our interconnectedness with nature become mere trappings if we do not devote ourselves to conscious action for the sake of the environment regularly. Some of these trappings even fly in the face of the health of Earth: for instance, the insistence on consuming coffee with yak butter from the Himalayas, or eating quinoa that has been grown by large-scale industry where local farming populations are suffering, or eating almond butter produced in regions prone to drought, or flying 2,000+ miles to the Amazon for an ayahuasca retreat, as if there were only one substance in nature that could aid our self-understanding if we ingest it, bypassing the generations of shamans that were traditionally designated in many indigenous communities as those who could drink from the cup and commune with the plant spirit world, while Greta Thunberg will not board a plane.

Yes, I am feeling quite critical of the trappings, and also guilty of wearing them (well, not the ayahuasca piece – but I do practice forms of yoga traditionally reserved for the brahmins) at the expense of the environment itself.

Our growing edges as an environmentally-conscious community are many.

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Oak trees of three generations

But of all the things we try to do and try to be seen doing to help Our Mother, She has taught me this Earth Day that I am doing the best I can to help her right now.

If allowed the opportunity, Nature takes care of herself, and of us. The pandas are mating for the first time in ten years at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. After 100 years, the first grey wolf has apparently been sighted in Normandy. A rare leatherback sea turtle is returning to the humanless beaches in Thailand and Florida. And two coyotes, a bobcat, and a grey fox visited my backyard in three days, as evidenced on the trail camera.

Now that we are in enforced isolation from each other, we are in greater communion with Nature, and are understanding that she doesn’t take very long to catch on to our lack of interference, and goes about accomplishing in a matter of weeks the goals for species protection and ozone health and clean waterways on which we have been struggling for years to gain purchase.

And we are like my neighbor’s robot sculpture clad with a mask, held back from normative behaviors, stalled and voiceless by the realization that we are not masters of nature; that we are a part of her body.

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As my former colleagues in Classics at University College London say, time to go and pull your copy of Lucretius’ 1st-century BCE Epicurean treatise De Rerum Natura (find a free, but antiquated, translation here).

This work on “The Nature of Things” is a didactic poem, a teaching poem that celebrates Venus Genetrix, Nature herself, that births and destroys, builds up and breaks down and builds up again in ever-resilient resourcefulness. Also, if you are critical of organized religion and the ways in which it challenges our communion with nature, you might well enjoy this work! Also, if you are interested in ancient atomic theory, there are some marvellous sections on the relationship between the two essential entities Lucretius claims underpin the natural world: form and formlessness, or atoms and the void (the space in which they move).

I would like to read Lucretius and thus experience a state of ataraxia, the Epicurean freedom from fear and pain in the mind that comes from rejection of religion and superstition and acceptance of the fundamental, mechanistic forces of nature that are ever-present in nature, but that’s a lot of conditions, and I do like my astrology, and God.

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Where the wild meets the paved

But the reading is not what does it for me these days.

It is breathing the outside air and hearing wild sounds. Finding new, rich colors in the ridges of the mountains, and cultivating awe at the visibility of the islands off the coast, as if they have drifted closer to the land. Walking through the neighborhood and hearing families talking and laughing, seeing a woman dancing in her living room, a couple sitting out on their deck drinking wine. Smelling jasmine, rosemary, honeysuckle, the gritty scent of pine. When walking yesterday I felt big shapes start to shift against one another in my customary perception of the world and the wild, and as I reached the crest of the hill near my house, I had come so far away from the narrow channels of linear thinking and traveling without really hearing and seeing the world around me that I began to fear the consequences of spending too much time in that expansive presence of mind and heart.

I realized in this radical and spontaneous mindfulness practice that the yoga I practice is often just as linear as all else I do, paying lip-service to presence and mindfulness through a rigorous program of physical postures that have a “peak”, an end, a telos. And the mental experience attendant to this has been having it in my mind that I am being present and mindful more than having the felt experience of such.

Last night I sat on the deck with my cat Toby and watched him listen to the birds. He teaches me that life can evolve a little from day to day, that life is evolving from day to day beyond the static projections of my mind, in imperceptible ways. Especially as Toby is a new member of the household as of last August, he teaches me to ask questions about why we are accustomed to do or think about things in this way or that way. Sometimes I have an answer. Often I don’t.

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Toby mesmerized

The considerable tragedy that remains for our own species is that millions around the world have lost their jobs, the source of their livelihoods and vocations now deemed “unessential” while those with essential jobs are exposing themselves to the virus every day at work, in the hospital, or the grocery store. And the rest of us have the distinct privilege of working from home and luxuriating in nature’s capacity to renew herself more quickly than we would orchestrate. And it is Nature herself that reminds us and challenges us to take care of those whom we know are struggling.

We are all forced to become shut-ins, observers, students of Nature. We are all forced onto the fringes because there is no center of normative behavior and interaction. And thus there are no designated retreat centers we can visit to find ourselves in nature. There are just the circumstances that have brought us to this place. The centers of our orbit prior to our hibernation. And it certainly is a once-in-a-lifetime chance we have to reflect on the centrality of those things in our lives, and how they may have at times stopped us from remembering:

We are ever in Nature, and we are ever part of Nature.

Happy Earth Day (Earth Year, as it is quickly becoming)!

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Reflections on the Time of Coronavirus, in Four Parts

Do settle in: this is a long read, but all we have is time these days, after all…?

 I. A Lecture on the End of Time in a Theatre Soon to Close

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Eleven days ago, before the tyranny of a pandemic virus would take hold over  California, I took my dad out for a birthday dinner at a new Thai place in town, and then to a lecture from Columbia University Professor and leading string theorist Brian Greene. It was a full house of people eager to hear Greene’s position on the “end of time”: Does this exist? If so, how will it happen? How does human history figure into the end of the universe?

Greene proceeded to give a bombastic lecture, with elaborate animations and soundscapes, of the circumstances leading up to the end of time, which manifested themselves in a complex relationship between dynamics of Entropy (disorder), Evolution, and Eternity.

According to Greene, the extinction of humanity “from one thing or another” would happen well before the earth would fall into the dark, dead sun, and black holes would suck up matter until there would be none left and then collapse in on themselves. The end of all existence would follow the final bit of entropy that is released upon the act of  the generation of a final thoughtonly for some of those entropic particles to meet eventually somewhere in the void and become something, leading to (eventually) a new Big Bang, a new expanding universe, a new Earth (or Earth-ish thing), and all the rest of it in a great, meta-cosmic cycle.

Now, if I had been quick enough to line up behind all the eager physicists jostling for a turn with the mic during the Q&A, I would have asked, “why is thought the final thing to precede nothingness, followed by eventual somethingness?” Why couldn’t that thing be anything else? A cat, or a book, or a bottle of whiskey? Perhaps for Greene, thought is just a placeholder for whatever the final thing is. Perhaps he is extending a consolation prize to the creationists after claiming that there is no intelligent design, or designer in the universe, by presuming that in the end (and thus in the beginning) was logos (word, thought) after all.

Perhaps, as was his consistent refrain when he rounded up a not-completely-resolved point in the talk, or when his querents asked too complicated a question, you just have to read my new book.

Said new book

II. If We Know Nature, Can We Control Her?

This is a question that comes to me in the present circumstances, when many worldwide are stuck at home watching the increasingly harrowing news about more cases and more deaths, or otherwise in grocery stores, panic-buying pasta and toilet paper, even when our world leaders say that the supply chains are still solid. They say that if we shut ourselves up in our houses, the virus will burn itself out in its failure to find new hosts within a few months.

Do we know better? Are our mathematical models and social distancing strategies superior to the instincts of a virus that has no cognition (as far as we know)?

It was not Greene’s claim about the lack of intelligent design of the universe; nor his assertion that we have no free will because our constituent particles determine our actions; nor even his postulation that, if particles by natural succession make predictable patterns in structure, there might be a floating brain structure identical to his own brain out in space, thinking the same thoughts as he is and imagining that it is a human, giving a lecture in front of hundreds of people when actually it is a floating brain – it was none of these claims that I found most arresting.

It was one graph he showed us that demonstrated the accuracy of mathematical models for determining the distribution of heat in the universe (as was confirmed by observable readings), and his comment that, “See, we can make these mostly reliable calculations, and we have some control.”

Control of the natural world through understanding, I assumed he meant, so that science becomes not merely a means of knowing through observation, but a means of using the language of mathematics to penetrate the cosmos with incisive predictions about the end of all life, matter, and time. [Yes, he did concede that mathematics may indeed not be the only, or the best language available to us to know, in the Q&A].

This presumption to know irritated me, and I rather begrudged him this statement that night. I asked Venus Genetrix, Nature herself, to disprove his predictions, to keep her mysteries fully intact. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose…

But then I realized that I habitually look to establish a similar sense of “control” in my own research. I study Greco-Roman literature and myth, and my colleagues and I often presume to know, to have some control over (our understanding of) these cultures, and the function of stories therein. I too like to give the logos of thought and analysis presiding importance, rather than to let the object of my thought stand for itself and remain resolutely unanalyzed.

As interested as we in that lecture theatre were not two weeks ago in what the end of time will look like, this week we would all like to know when we will even be able to enter a theatre again, when things will return to normal, and at what human price. This knowledge, this control myself and innumerable others around the world would do much to redeem.

And as a yogi, the processes of “letting go”/”surrendering” to nature that we hear as stock instructions in the classes that are now live-streamed by teachers in self-isolation, ring numbly in my ears.  These instructions demand a radical renunciation of my own acute experience of needing nature to be more predictable, to follow our well-researched strategies for its containment.

When things are most at stake, the real yoga begins, and asks us whether the question, “Do we have control?” is the most important one.

III. The Control We Have?

It is the first day of spring. Day 1 of the California Governor’s stay-at-home order, whose end has yet to be determined.

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A friendly neighborhood reminder I came across the other day…

The world has changed so rapidly in the last few months that we have had no choice but to live under the reign of this new, invisible power, a respiratory disease that has become a global pandemic. People have died, and continue to perish by the thousands in the hardest hit countries: Italy, China, Iran, Spain. The California governor predicts that 56% of Californians could contract the virus, unless we all undergo prolonged, rigorous self-isolation.

Many of us can work from home, but many of us cannot work at all, have no choice but to apply for unemployment insurance. Those who work in the arts, entertainment, hospitality, travel, and especially airline industries are the worst affected. Many countries have closed their borders.

The landlords cannot evict their tenants, residential or commercial. The schools and libraries are closed. Most of the courts are closed. The restaurants are open only for take-out. The grocery stores are packed with shoppers who deplete the pasta shelves and the meat counter before noon.

This enforced isolation began as mere social distancing (maintaining a distance of six feet from another person) in public places and transmuted itself into the complete desertion of public places.

And now, we do everything at home: see friends virtually, work remotely, take live-streamed yoga classes, watch a lot of Netflix, play board games, (hopefully) have lots of fulfilling sex and deep discussions. And the end of this is indefinite.

When I watch television or films these days, I feel as if I am on a long-haul flight. I watch people out in the world, engaging in social activities that I must wait to experience again. Until we’ve reached some destination of normalcy.

I find that the biggest impact this phase in world history has dealt me is the realization of our human connectivity, the understanding that for the first time in my life, death has a common face globally, a coronavirus. At the same time I and many others practice an anthrocentrism that balks at the splendor of the natural world that lies beyond our shut windows. Why does nature not see what is happening to us? Why do the trees still dance in the wind, and the bees fill the lavender bushes and the winking stars of Orion continue to float somewhere past my roof?

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Somehow the natural world feels more enchanted than before.

Yet for some, this current situation carries few new perspectives, or existential quandaries.

When walking past a new build in my neighborhood, where a large contingent of the builders are of Latinx descent, I overheard two blonde women who were surveying the building project and reflecting on their own experiences as overseers of home improvement works. One of them said, “My girlfriend Lori and I share Santos…well, I shouldn’t say we share him. He works for her six days a week”.

Shortly after this, I heard a young man frustratedly shouting into his phone, “Can’t he and I just split the fee? I said I was interested in this role, and now he goes to the fucking company about it?!”

The anxieties of work, politics, and the everyday violence of belittling, racist objectification of others somehow still prevails in the midst of Nature’s appeal to us all to wake up.

Assuming that Nature is intelligent.

IV. Making Meaning in the Madding Maelstrom: Some Attempts

Dr. Greene delivered his talk not two weeks ago at a theatre that is now shut. And now no one can sit at the counter at the Thai restaurant in the bustling public market.

 

The restaurants and coffee shops have cleared out all their tables. A big void in front of the counter gapes open, and people swirl around there in an invisible vortex, giving each other a wide berth, looking nervously over their shoulders as they wait for the barista to add cream to their coffee, as the self-service area has been dismantled.

At the grocery store, the meat, produce, bread, and pasta go first. Only skim milk is left. People slide past one another, nervous and smooth as electric eels, crackling with nerves. The manager stands in front of his desk, hands on hips, looking analytically and anxiously at the shoppers whose faces are pinched with scarcity, who smile nervously.

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The pasta aisle, where all that remains is a solitary one-minute gluten free white rice…

Next week I will be giving a lecture (via Zoom) on myth and multiculturalism in Pompeii to graduate students in a comparative mythology program. In the initial stage of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the city in the summer (or fall, depending on whom you ask) of 79 CE, the city experienced twelve hours of pumice fall before the pyroclastic flow hit: twelve hours of admonitory earthquakes, of the harbor being girded by a floating barrier of fallen porous volcanic rock that blocked the advance of Pliny the Elder’s rescue ships (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16). Meanwhile, people in Herculaneum, the smaller community on the other side of Vesuvius, saw the pumice falling on their neighbors in Pompeii, and may not have known that they were also in for the acute force of the pyroclastic flow that would bury their city.

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Image from “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Pompeii”, Smithsonian MagazineJuly 2015

Has this stay-at-home order been issued in time for the warning? The pumice fall? Has the pyroclastic flow hit? Do we have the control to anticipate when it will?

They have skipped the animal testing of the prospective vaccine for the virus and are moving to human trials, but they are still working with a timeline of approximately 18 months.

Do we have control?

In China the worst seems to be over, and they are opening the schools and the restaurants again. They are leading the navigation of this fleet of countries, sailing on with closed borders and socially distant citizens, into uncharted waters of global survival. Will there be a second wave, a new squall of disease? We are already venturing out to test this, like wildebeests that must return to the watering hole after the crocodiles that took a few of their number have sunk back below the surface…

Do we have control?

And still, Nature continues its reliable patterns. The spring storms surge. The land is green. The wildflowers are blooming in the hills. The world smells like nature’s apothecary here in California. Wild sage and sweet chaparral. The birds sing the fragrances of the plants.

Meanwhile, our loci of control are still revealed to us. My yoga practice. My Pompeii lecture. My book on Greek tragic women. My small stash of toilet paper. My practice of rigorous social distancing as a means of protecting my mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy and is most at risk from the current threat. I do not know whether my peers are observing the same measure of isolation as I am. I need to break my Lenten fast and get back on social media, I guess.

I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu before the museums closed. I took some photos of Athenian vases, Roman frescos and sculptures. I sat in the ocean-facing garden of the museum, which is built as a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri, a massive residence in Herculaneum buried under 20 meters of ash, a monument containing a library of scrolls whose words we have yet to develop the technology to read.

Another example of the word as the end and the beginning.

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The outer peristyle at the Getty Villa, with natatio (the museum calls it a “reflecting pool”) in the left corner.

Keep well and safe, everyone! Thanks for reading.

 

The “Big Picture”: Insights from the New Moon, Ecopsychology, and Poetics

The Lunar New Year of the Rat and the New Moon in Aquarius. Time to think of the bigger picture. To find solutions through untried ways. To form community alliances to achieve strategic goals. To use guile to be the first animal across the river to win a place in the Chinese Zodiac. To observe nature and pour out insights which the poets and the painters and the visionaries will quaff.

What does this “big picture” (an infuriatingly obscure phrase, in my opinion) really look like? Do we assume a broad, aerial perspective of the terrain of our lives, and suspend sympathies with those who walk the roads whose trajectories we see from high above?

Is there just one big picture, one view from godlike transcendence?

Does the big picture denote the objective view? Or does it stretch the heart’s capacities for loving awareness (to use a Ram Dass-ism)?

One complicated “big picture” book

I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, The Overstory, a great opus made up of small tales, all of which carry a distinct feature of transformation involving human relationships with trees. It is Ovid’s Metamorphoses meets contemporary ecocriticism. It is a narrative ekstasis, in that it somehow stands far beyond its subjects and still looks closely at individual lives in a series of distinct moments of tender and painful intimacy. It is difficult for me to understand when I am looking at the bigger picture and when what I think is the broad view turns out to be just a lick of paint in a mural without end. I am not even a quarter of the way through, because I read and pause and digest and dream. I read before I sleep, and I dream of Nature pressing against the walls until she plunges inside. I dream about mountain lions coming in through an unresolvable gap in the sliding glass door, before they brush against me and groom themselves in the living room as if I was one of their own.

One of the stories focuses on the experiences of a man who went from playing the role of a prisoner in Zimbardo’s ill-fated Stanford Prison Experiment to serving in Nam, and then working as a ranch hand in Idaho, before drifting aimlessly westward. Aimlessly, until he found out about the clear-cutting in the national forests through which he was driving. He paid a pilot to fly him over the forest, and saw innumerable bald patches marring the green plains of Douglas Firs. His incredulity, anger, and despair transformed into a resolve that he would plant trees in those very patches of scarred earth, and trust that the new saplings would grow never to be felled, that they would survive human deforestation. That they would survive humans.

The subterranean “big picture” from Nature

Earlier this week I attended a lecture on ecopsychology, wherein my colleague giving the lecture elucidated the ways in which trees communicate with one another about environmental threats and changes. They share defense signals, even with their competitor species.

I learned about the work of University of British Columbia biologist Suzanne Simard, whose research is apparently addressed somewhere in The Overstory beyond my current place in the book. In her TEDx Talk inspired by her research published in Nature about the communications between trees, she explains that old “mother trees” share carbon and nutrients with the younger trees in a forest, and they send extra resources to younger trees that are nutrient-poor.

“Forests are built on relationships”, Simard declares from the TED stage, claiming that complex adaptive systems such as these sophisticated communication lines are the source of resilience. These systems model mutual respect. We might wish to draw cues for human behavior from the trees, which teach that there is collective well being in the conscious sharing of information, that it is in keeping with nature to make it known when we experience stress, rather than to keep silent.

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A view of the landscape at the Vedanta Temple, where the Mother trees loom large

One personal Overstory: When Nature stretched open my heart

Undoubtedly it was this recent series of insights that culminated in my experience of brightened vision of nature yesterday afternoon. I was driving, thinking about things embarrassingly petty, when I saw a large carpet of wild mustard on the hillside. My whole demeanor shifted from vaguely irritated and apathetic to gobsmacked. I could not believe how beautiful the color was. And then as I continued to drive I saw deep purple, rusty red, clean and bright green, in numerous textures and arrangements of plant life, and it all converged to overwhelm me and, like a curtain drawn open I could feel the fringes of my heart stretch wide open with a kind of love that was fulfilled and unreturned at the same time.

It reminded me of the day when, at five years old, I opened my eyes after having them closed for a week following a surgery, and I noticed first the colors that seemed to crowd in and vie for my attention. My eyes were new and all the living things of the world seemed more full of life than they had ever been.

And so yesterday I caught myself, perhaps for the second time in my life, knowing the world in a loving way first and foremost.

The bigger picture revealed to me then that nothing is beyond the domain of the heart, even the material of rational objectivity which I would otherwise ascribe to the mind. This five-minute reverie when my eyes swept along the colorful vista out my car window plunged me into a continuum of what I can only call impassioned consciousness.

Omniscience and empathy in poetic beloveds, Whitman and Tempest

Whenever I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), I watch all the people he saw in the world revolve before my mind’s eye: the farmer and the soldier and the young bride and the enslaved person and the artist and the body of the drowned man and the infant at the mother’s breast and the cat prowling back gardens. All nameless, everyday archetypes for the time. All my heart’s threshing floor, the place to harvest words and sort through meanings.

In one segment, “The Sleepers”, Whitman offers a catalogue of normally socially differentiated people whose experience of sleep endows them with a shared human experience that transcends their differing levels of privilege, age, freedom and suffering:

I swear they are all beautiful,

Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,

The wildest and bloodiest is over, and all is peace.

Sleep, the blanket experience of peace and grave vulnerability, is mundane and intimate here.

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My battered copy gifted by a dear friend

Kate Tempest’s poem, “Lionmouth Doorknocker” in her album Let Them Eat Chaos (2016) hands the listener off to a series of one-lined vignettes of people in the city in the daytime:

The workers watch the clocks

Fiddle with their Parker pens

While the grandmothers

Haggle with the market men

Then she plunges us into the intimate acquaintance of those few people who are awake in the depths of early morning, and are not the beautiful ones at peace, as in Whitman’s world.

It’s 04:18 AM

At this very moment, on this very street

Seven different people in seven different flats

Are wide awake, they can’t sleep

Now, of all these people, in all these houses

Only these seven are awake

And they shiver in the middle of the night

Counting their sheepish mistakes

Is anybody else awake?

Will it ever be day again?

Are these people more wretched because they are at the mercy of their thoughts, or because they cannot see that their experience is shared? Because they do not know about the networks of roots that run from tree to tree, from person to person, when we share pain and share the resources to cope? Because they do not see the big picture?

The pictures the Sleepers (don’t) see

Do the peaceful dreamers see the bigger picture of their own waking circumstances, and find peace therein?

Not here will I attempt to defend the validity of reporting dreams, and ascribing truth to them. But undeniably dreams do offer a different kind of vision, from which we create story, association, and meaning, as we do in waking life. And in the following example from my own catalogue of recent dreams, there is an aspect of seeing, or failing to see, which I feel is somehow related to the issue of perspective addressed in this blog entry: And yes, there is self-indulgence in dream-telling, but also in blog-writing and painting and playwrighting and any creative work.

I had an appointment with someone wise, and to visit this person I went up a marble staircase, which ended at a landing with corridors leading to the right and left, where stood, respectively, statues of a man in 18th-century Anglo-American dress (long coat, buckled shoes, stockings, breeches, and a cravat) and a woman who looked like an image of Venus, with her draped clothing gathered around her hips. Her hair was loose and tumbled wildly over her shoulders and her breasts, and a snake slithered up her torso, its tail pointing down between her hip bones and its head lost somewhere in her hair. I took the path to the right, past the statue of the man, because those were the instructions I had been given. At the end of the corridor I reached an empty gallery, in what I knew to be the British Museum. A huge crowd of people was milling around, pausing at intervals to look at the bare walls, as if there were fascinating exhibits there. I could see nothing, and this terrified me. Then a harried old man in an orange suit shuffled toward me, telling me he had been waiting for me, that I must come with him. His speech was rapid and pressured, and I feared him. He was not the one I had come to meet. I ran back down the stairs and he ran after me. I got to the bottom of the staircase and he could go no further.

Somehow I cannot content myself simply to appreciate the paradox, the irresolvable complexity between the bigger picture and the small, tender lives it encapsulates. To watch myself and others, dreaming or waking, attempt to see a broader, impartial view, and come up against the occupation hazard of having a body, and immediate circumstances that intrude upon this enlightened perspective.

But I do not say this with cynicism. For me, the ecstasy of jet-setting subjectivity is endlessly fascinating.

Aquarius takes the aerial, broad, outside-of-the-box view, and at the New Moon, grand schemes are birthed out of the known metrical workings of the world. But Aquarius is also a fixed air sign. To look out from behind the eyes of the individual is not the habit of Aquarius, but Leo, its counterpoint and opposite sign, which also fixes itself in habitual perspectives.

But to integrate the poles of this opposition, and to honor the different modes of seeing oneself and the outside, to remember that big and small abide in the heart, to recognize visions, dreams, and feelings, and to understand their comings-and-goings within oneself and others, like the wind through the trees –  that might be the best practice I can follow in this Lunar New Year.

Because when I read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, or listen to the first track from Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos, (“Picture a Vacuum”), I know that the broad view makes my heart pummel its cage no less than does the narrow.

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Personal Mythos and the New Year

 

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Last sunset of 2019 behind the redwoods

Behold, we have passed into a new year, and a new decade, and whether or not we have readied ourselves with new intentions/goals/resolutions, many of us (at least on the social media front) see this as an opportune time for memorializing the state of our lives ten years ago, as compared to our lives today.

I was touched by the self-compassion that pervades people’s descriptions of their former selves, especially in the midst of challenges. A wonderful way to start the New Year – to witness the narrative of one’s life compassionately, and to be kind and charitable to oneself.

The New Year carries with it a powerful collective wave of intentionality for manifestation of visionary intentions, and it is a good time for affirmation of one’s current stage(s) of personal journeying.

Mapping my own experience onto the mythological and the archetypal has always been fun and illuminating. It gives daily life a real sense of poetic significance. It reminds me that every person has an extraordinary set of circumstances that comprise their own unique mythos, whether known or unknown to me. This practice, really more an occupational hazard of studying Greco-Roman myth for many years, rarely fails to give me a valuable perspective on life situations, regularly assures me of the universally lived experience of challenges that feel difficult to bear in isolation, and gives me agency in re-casting my own story.

One Model of Personal Mythmaking: The Hero’s Journey

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I work at an institution that prides itself on its collection of artifacts from Joseph Campbell, the famed comparative mythologist who traced the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey that he claimed pervaded mythological and folkloric traditions internationally. In his book Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell structures the hero’s journey around three key stages, paraphrased here:

  • Call to adventure (including meeting a mentor who guides the hero on the initial stages of the quest).
  • Trials of initiation into a new world of challenges, triumphs and failures, a phase which culminates in a journey to the Underworld and meeting a teacher with a prophetic message.
  • Return to the place of origin with divine knowledge gained on the journey, and the process of integration of that knowledge into “normal life”.

When I taught an undergraduate course on Greek heroism, I offered an extra credit project that invited students to map Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey onto one life situation. This assignment yielded extraordinary stories about challenges met and lessons encountered through travel, second language acquisition, health difficulties, lost loves and friendships, authentic expression of self amidst social stigma, new familial and work responsibilities, and other challenges. One student shared with me that he felt a refreshing sense of personal agency as a result of completing the assignment. In my own life similar exercises in personal mythmaking (including the hero’s journey model a la Campbell) had provided helpful perspectives for years, and I was glad to see that this was helpful to others.

Journaling the Personal Mythos

Having read over some of my own journals from the past year, 2019 presented various Campbellian stages of realization: I found a gut-dwelling, steady voice within myself I had not heard in years. I learned the art of critical discernment in the role of student and teacher. I learned to recognize interpersonal cyclical patterns that repeat themselves as dependably as the tides. I learned to speak up for myself clearly and directly. I learned to be accountable for the pain I caused others. I learned to take care of myself in the ways that suited me, including yoga, cooking, writing and performing poetry, singing old Irish songs, and reading short stories. I deepened treasured friendships. I moved back to my hometown. I took steps further in the direction of financial independence.

Keeping a regular journal, especially during the more difficult times of growth, is helpful, because it reveals the learning process, and allows one to look back at the feelings, the insights, and the self-talk that attend the various stages of one’s journey (or whatever you might call your mythic narrative – at present in the Anglo-American consciousness the hero’s journey is widely prevalent, and this is the one I am invoking here, but this is certainly not the only narrative type).

Looking back at these journals can be quite confronting and humiliating, but the lived experience is there, just for the eyes of the experiencer-turned-future-loving-reader. This is very different from writing the story after the close of its lived experience, which is another good exercise (my students’ extra credit assignment).

Personal Mythmaking and New Year’s Intentions

There are many resolutions, calls to adventure, that await. The sheer number of varied New-Year’s- resolution-oriented invitations on social media is overwhelming.

And so the questions come a-hammering:

  • Which pursuit is really for you?
  • Is this a good time to set out on a new path in this particular aspect of your life, or is there something to be finished first?
  • Are you in the trials of initiation? Is there an obstacle you’ve been avoiding that awaits your attention prior to getting on with things?
  • Are you trudging through the depths of the Underworld? Is there some illumination of the next steps awaiting your sight in the deepest part of the trek?
  • Are you back where you started, integrating what you have learned?

The New Year is a good time to acknowledge your present stance, and to start from where you are. At least that is what I tell myself, speaking from what feels like a hammock of indolence on Calypso’s Island (see below)…

And wherever you may find yourself in your journey, in your work, it can be an interesting exercise to look for the attendant archetypal forces, whether they lie within yourself, others, or situations.

The below categories are my play on themes from the story of the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey homeward to the island of Ithaca from the Trojan War, as told in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic poem, the Odyssey):

  • The mentor / the teacher / the one who keeps you on track (the goddess Athena for Odysseus); also the one you may mistrust or whose guidance you may ignore at times.
  • The Land of the Lotus Eaters / Calypso’s Island – the place where you tend to get distracted, complacent, and drawn away from your work. In Odysseus’ story, Hermes the messenger god goes to Calypso’s island, where Odysseus has been languishing for seven years, to push the hero to continue his journey homeward to Ithaca. So, if you get distracted, be your own messenger and carry on. Or if you are really in the throes of complacency the messenger might just find you…
  • The Cyclops – the person you are liable to demean, take advantage of, and/or dredge of physical or emotional resources, in service of your work; take care to avoid this, or make proper amends if this has already happened. Odysseus blinds the Cyclops after leading his men into the Cyclops’ cave to steal food and livestock, then endeavoring to claim protection under Zeus as a guest when he was caught red-handed. Yes, the Cyclops threatened to eat them, but still, what bad behavior…
  • The sorceress / Circe – the dark feminine, the mistress of nature, who transfigures men into animals – the one you cannot fool or con, the one whose power you must acknowledge with full awe and devotion before she can help you (or else you will turn into a pig, I suppose…)
  • The Underworld – the dark and lonely place where guidance is present but only attainable through faith, right action, and reunion with the departed.
  • The Phaiakians – the generous helpers and benefactors worthy of enduring gratitude and acknowledgement; the ones who gave Odysseus a banquet, gifts, games, a platform for telling his own story of his travels, and safe passage home to Ithaca in the last stage of his journey.
  • Yourself as the storyteller – are you talking about your quest (posting on social media counts) more than doing it? Does your pursuit need a wider audience? If so, when is the right time to share your work, and whom do you aim to reach?
  • Integration and homecoming – roughly half of the Odyssey features Odysseus’ process of reintroducing himself to his homeland, during which he must live as a beggar prior to reclaiming his role as leader of the community. The process of going back home again is consequential, whether that be moving back in with one’s parents, undergoing psychotherapy and grappling with family-of-origin issues, or deciding to root oneself into a brand new space to call home. It takes time, and some patience and willingness to live in obscurity while listening with one’s ear to the ground and learning about the place and how to navigate it.
  • Penelope – the loved one you say you are doing all this for, but whose needs and personal sacrifices you might be ignoring or suppressing as you forge on. Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited 20 years for his return, fending off suitors and putting their son’s life at risk, while he garnered the experiences in war, travel, and sexual exploits worthy of a “hero” only to come back and tell her that he must go away on ANOTHER quest according to a prophecy (how convenient).

And whether or not you encounter any or all of the above in your pursuit of quests, intentions or resolutions of this year, remember that you are likely playing several of these roles in the journeys of others, and remember that going off course sometimes yields a good story in and of itself…

HAPPY NEW YEAR AND NEW DECADE OF ADVENTURING!!

Caveat: For the record, while I find that the journey of Odysseus is a good archetypal model (especially when things do not go as planned in our own pursuit of life goals) I do not commend Odysseus for his violence, xenophobia, misogyny, disrespect for the gods, foolhardiness, fallaciousness, negligence, and hubris. For a good alternative rendering of this story from Penelope’s standpoint, and the standpoint of Penelope’s 12 nameless maids Odysseus murdered upon his arrival back to Ithaca, read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.

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A thrilling cloudscape on the last day of 2019, spent in a lazy afternoon at the beach. And now for that quest…

On Reflections, and Divided(?) Selfhood in the Wake of the Full Moon in Gemini

 

It is days past the full Moon, and she seems to be waning more slowly than usual in my mind, so she is due a treatment in writing, a love letter apt for her cerebral nature…

At the Full Moon, there is always a disclosure, an illumination. But with the Full Moon in Gemini, there are multiplicities of truths and testimonies. There are variants of the same archetype. There are different characters vying to be trusted. Can they all be trusted?

The Full Moon is the imprecise mirror of the Sun, the doppelganger that can reflect solar light to just an intensity that we can behold without blinding ourselves. The Moon shines her fullest light and reveals a new nocturnal world to us that looks like day in black pearlescence.

But while the Full Moon in astrology represents an opportunity for hidden emotional contours and instinctual patterns to be revealed consciously (not in keeping with polite company sometimes), its recent position has made this process far less than straightforward. The Moon had just come from a square to Neptune in Pisces, which would give any such revelations startling, all-encompassing significance, with the caveat that the great meaning illusory. Venus, Saturn, and Pluto are meanwhile bound up in the sign of Capricorn, where relationships, personal and professional, may struggle to operate with customary ease, amidst still-hidden obstacles. And for at least that evening of the Full Moon, while the communicative Moon in Gemini wanted to facilitate collaborative communication and the open exchange of ideas, Neptune was at the ready to dissolve the clarity of the messages, and the Capricorn stellium was primed to leave the more essential truths under heavy guard.

I’ll leave it to you, constant reader, to reflect upon the manifestations of this dynamic you may have met five evenings ago now (Pacific Time, of course 😉).

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Gemini Full Moon illuminating the ridgetop below.

One interesting manifestation of this Neptunian/Gemini Moon magic 

At the Full Moon I met a friend for tea and cake, and instantaneously the café transformed into a vortex for those whose company I enjoy: I saw my colleague whose office is next to mine, having an early dinner; I saw my yoga teacher reading and annotating an enormous tome prior to being set upon by an enthusiastic student; then arrived two old friends whose daughter was my schoolmate for several years. The space was dreamlike, and I delighted in seeing the little worlds I have inhabited in this city throughout my life comingling there. And though the one I was meeting was the one I knew the least at that point, the whole scenario was made all the more interesting by the array of experiences and interests we shared (all quite Gemini-themed): books, ideas, humor, and realms of study.

(Unanswerable) question time

Kinship with another in some (i.e. not all) aspects makes us Full Lunar aspects of each other. We reflect the other just enough for them to see a part of themselves more clearly (whether more or less favorably), and vice versa. And the countless other aspects of ourselves we keep latent, bound up, awaiting yet another appropriate mirror…

Or so my current musings go, in keeping with the sentiment in Cicero’s treatise on friendship, De Amicitia (Section 23): Anyone who looks upon a true friend is looking at a copy of himself.

But surely one could say the same about the enemy, the beloved, and the stranger, if one believes that we see ourselves wherever we go, because we are all forms of Self, in essence, or by some other explanation.

And then there are the many questions to be posed: do we see ourselves in another moreso when we first meet them, or after we have come to know them? Or is the image of the person more of a representation of our worldview, or of our past conditioning, than of ourselves in the present moment? Is it both – is our view of ourselves, and our view of ourselves in another a microcosm of the ways in which we view the world? If we do not allow space for others to grow and transform themselves, how can we support ourselves in doing the same? Do leopards change their spots, or is there a stasis in the essential elements of a personality that defy projection? Or perhaps the perception of stasis or change in a person reflects the same phenomenon we see in ourselves.

Or perhaps the more essential question:

Can we look with love, upon ourselves and others? Can we give ourselves the space to run and writhe and rest in response to the fluctuating feelings and life situations that pass through our bodies in subtle and quite unsubtle ways?

Can we be gracious towards ourselves, knowing that these fluctuations are human?

I have a feeling that no matter how much yoga I practice or how many teachers I study with (including the long-dead ones), I will still be spinning in the dramas of self/other. So, instead of enlightenment I am going for emotional intelligence; not the absence of knowing these fluctuations, but the ability to recognize these fluctuations and their effects. To steep myself in the effects and acknowledge this, in all its complexities.

And when I sit with another person, or look into a mirror, I reliably alternate between feelings of kinship, otherness, disassociation, kinship again, attraction, repulsion. And it is curious to wonder, as does the protagonist at the beginning of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, She Came To Stay, does the world around me take shape because I am looking at it? Do I have a face if I cannot see my face, or touch it? Do I exist if no one is looking? Do I always have to be the one looking at myself?

The kinds of cerebral things that plague one in the wake of the one night in a given year when the teacher (Sagittarius Sun) looks himself in the mirror and sees the student (Moon in Gemini)…

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Waning full-ish Moon in Gemini in the morning (same view as above)

Three poems about a mirror, a doppelganger, the self as watcher of the self

I’ll end this post with a digest of poems that have aided the above cogitations, in chronological order of production:

1) Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3: 339-510: The Tale of Narcissus

Narcissus, a young hunter desired by all young men and women refused all his would-be lovers, the last of whom cursed Narcissus. Narcissus stopped one day by a still, clear pool in a clearing in the woods, and fell in love with his reflection he could not embrace, though he tried ceaselessly. Once Narcissus discovered that he was desperately in love with his own reflection, he knew that he would die of heartache, because he could not physically possess his beloved as desired other.

And so he wastes away, and his body transforms into the Narcissus flower. And in the Underworld, his soul stares longingly at its own reflection in the River Styx for eternity.

2) Heinrich Heine, “Der Doppelgänger”

I do not know what possessed me recently to look back at the work of a 19th-century German poet I had not encountered in almost 10 years.

But I felt good to reacquaint myself. Told in first person, “Der Doppelgänger” is about a man who is wandering empty streets at night and arrives in front of the house of his past beloved, who has not lived in that place for a very long time. He sees a man in front of him, wringing his hands in despair. And then the man turns and looks at the poet-narrator, who is shocked to find that he sees himself in the moonlight (“Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt!”).

3)

I received a beautiful unpublished poem in a poetry exchange, a poem whose author I have never met. The poem was a portrayal of the wasting condition of anorexia from the perspective of the mirror, which sings of its own silence, love, and despair.

And there it all was: the sad futility felt by the family members of the person suffering; the body which is a feared adversary, and a hated prison; the body which works by its own will to keep the soul intact; the body which is always waiting to be loved; the body which is part of the self, and not. And the questions remained with me surrounding the narrator’s point of view: who is watching? The inanimate mirror, or the reflected and disowned aspects of the self that know they are feared when they are looked at, the tender pieces needing the love of the only one whose view matters, the one who looks.

 

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And now it is the Earth, seeing herself and being seen in the Sun’s burning gaze…

Throwback to Springtime and a Poem for the Body

It has been six lunar months since I did my final evaluation as part of my yoga teacher training. It was the full moon at the height of spring, and all of the songs on my playlist had to do with things in full bloom, especially roses. This even included such tonally disparate selections as Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, and A Perfect Circle’s “Rose”. [I turned the volume way down, after realizing that I am not my teacher who stitches together all manner of soundscapes until I feel like I’m in a Baz Luhrmann film, as shifting emotional tones overtake the room and pass over my face like masks, until I become acquainted with the awareness that underlies all transitory states of thought and feeling. I turned down the volume because it feels more comfortable for me to teach yoga or anything else when I can take a lot of cues for pacing, pausing, and minor adjustments to the curricular plan from the students – their energetic vibe, areas of curiosity, level of engagement/disengagement].

Back in May I themed my 25-minute evaluation class on the full moon in Scorpio, which can serve as a reminder during the height of the spring season, when all is in bloom and the earth is verdant and colorful, that many underground, unseen processes of decay, death, and regeneration have resulted in the visible beauty of springtime. I translated this into a meditation on the body, on all the hidden rituals of dissolution and reconstitution of resources our organs perform every day, in each moment, by their own will, to sustain our lives. I didn’t have time for it, but was tempted to weave in a mythological theme: each spring the maiden Persephone returns to the home of her mother Demeter, the goddess of growing things, after spending three months, or half the year with her husband Hades, Lord of the Underworld.

And each fall she dies, and her mother takes away the light.

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Today the full moon is in Taurus, and for the past couple of days in the fullness of the season when the light is waning, I chose to honor the visible and the readily available. I chose to hearten myself, to nourish my body, to appreciate those who surround me, in the following ways:

  • Sitting in the foggy morning quiet and foregoing the normal vigorous movement routine.
  • Baking rich autumnal foods: a stilton tart, and spiced butternut squash loaf.
  • Taking the time to appreciate my colleagues for their craft.
  • Eating delicious Sichuan food with old friends and speaking about all manner of trivial and consequential topics.
  • Watching Joni Mitchell performances on Youtube with my dad and talking and laughing about the peculiarities of the artists we know and love.
  • Hanging out with the cat.
  • Writing a poem.

What’s your way of honoring that which is visible and present for you, including perhaps some difficult, previously hidden things which circumstances have dredged up and dragged out into the light?

A poem for the full moon, for the body: In Situ

And finally I’ll share what I wrote today, inspired by exploration of relationships between the body’s outer and inner forms. Because we also have a retrograde Mercury in Scorpio, the inner forms ought to be remembered too…

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In Situ

Her body

spirals itself

in tired steps to fill the invisible scaffolding

of a slim and pointed spire

so that all her cells stand

to emulate the reach of her fingertips

clamoring silently for skies ready

to fall.

 

On her knees

in fragile angularity, like brittle bones

of deer’s knees

meeting wretched ground

her body

forgets its feet

when she tries to make it smaller

and folds herself in half

and avoids looking downward

but anyway, her eyes shift there.

 

Her pupils twist themselves around and pierce

the uncontainable

flesh beneath her navel

swelling like heady summer air

that fills the empty nights

with floating lightning bugs and

breathing honeysuckle.

 

She folds herself up and eats half

And drinks half

And nourishes the half that has been good today,

while the other beckons like the waiting night,

the deep forest beyond the

guardrails edging the road.

 

And still she looks, until her probing pupils widen

and for the moment her world is just her love

for dark entrails wrapped

in skin

and rippling in their watery homes.

 

And when she closes her eyes

They echolocate insights

While she listens and

records their auguries.

Reflections on the Hidden, the Hallowed, and the Harrowing of Scorpio Season

Why not rise early, when it is still dark, to read a few lines of something that cradles, calms, delights, or even perturbs you? Why not write a few lines of your own, and regale yourself with contemplative musings, the beginnings of tales that flicker like firelight in the dark cold potential of the day unbirthed, a potential that seethes unseen, like magma, a day waiting to be born under the waning light of a sun in Scorpio?

These are the questions I ask myself when I want to stay in bed a few more minutes, but know that it will be ultimately more fulfilling to begin the day with some form of movement, contemplation, shifting things around in the shadows.

Scorpio is the purveyor of things hidden, and secret, and clandestine. The wielder of latent powers that churn the depths of the earth and generate new life out of the husks of old.

Here are some recent reflections on how this theme has expressed itself to me of late.

Fall at Pacifica

Astrology’s Scorpionic Renaissance

Despite my record of astrologically themed blog posts, my interest in astrology is something I’ve been ambivalent about sharing since I first began to study it when I was about ten years old, around the same time as I discovered Greco-Roman mythology, my great love and medicine. Astrology was one of those pursuits to study in the pre-sunrise, late night, hidden hours, because I received early messages that it was at worst creepy and demonic, and at best silly and small-minded.

My friends’ mothers, my teachers’ wives, those were the ones whom I was often told were interested in astrology when I was young; all the women about whom I could say, “I know of her, but I do not know her”. Those whose names rang like reference points in my mind well before I met them, after such a long time of mutual friends ensuring that our shared, secret interests would result in an enviable intimacy.

I did meet some of these rare, astrologically-inclined people in passing. Many of them had other primary, but still complementary pursuits: tarot, metalworking, psychoanalysis, painting. And similarly for me, astrology was a longstanding interest I kept close at hand wherever I went. I studied psychological astrology in California, then moved to the UK for graduate school and took a foundational course at the London School of Astrology, a course that combined the more popular techniques of birth chart reading and forecasting with branches as old and esoteric as horary astrology (the one that allows you to find that pair of keys you lost under the floorboards of your ex-wife’s house) and as nascent as astrocartography, which casts a new birth chart for you wherever you find yourself in the world. I have studied, I have read charts for others, and very recently I published my first astrological article, a piece on the astrological evolution of MTV as a network and a cultural entity in a volume, The Book of Music Horoscopes, edited by Frank Clifford, a great mentor of mine.

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One of the first astrology books I worked with as a pre-teen…

Music and Astrology

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now things have evolved, and among young people especially there seems to be a certain expectation of a base level of astrological literacy that stretches from personality profiling to behavioral adaptation on the basis of New Moons and Mercury retrogrades. Popular attitudes toward these two elements in particular expose the very human vacillation between the belief in the capacity of the individual to harness the power of the cosmos and “find the flow” with mere intentionality (expressed by making a vision board, journaling, or shouting into the void “It will be so!”), and the belief that there is nothing to do but surrender to cosmic forces which are more powerful than we are.

A recent New York Times article acknowledged the shift toward astrology, and other pursuits in self-awareness, self-development, and self-actualization (such as various practices associated with the psychedelic renaissance) used as language to communicate human experience, and modes of self-healing. The article centers on the pressures therapists are currently encountering to become fluent in this parlance in order to witness their clients’ experiences, rather than to voice encouragement or discouragement.

The shop where I bought my first astrology books, which used to be minded by older women dressed in voluminous earth-toned draperies is now run by young people, with no apparent predominance of gender expression, whose wardrobe does not clearly read “New-Age”.

So perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but it seems, at least in mainstream Californian culture, astrology no longer inhabits the dubious realm of the “occult”, and voicing one’s impressions of astrological phenomena is not perceived as a sinister deed, or, at its most benign, a wishy-washy practice for gullible and inconsequential minds.

Astrology seems to be doing the true Scorpionic thing of emerging, refortified and reformed out of the shadows.

Astrology is like folklore, an old, non-linear language for understanding humanness that goes in and out of fashion, but always manages to survive social pressures to go into hiding. The archetypal metaphors astrology uses offer (like folklore again) interpretations and aetiologies, points of origin for those goading questions of why, when each subsequent generation is just a bit more knowledgeable of compassion, moral behavior, environmentalism, diversity appreciation, kindness, hospitality, ingenuity, grace, and the arts of living honorably, generously, and conscientiously, we individually and collectively struggle to enact these lessons, and still manage to do ourselves and others harm sometimes.

Scorpio is in the sign of katabasis, the journey to the Underworld for a meeting with a departed mentor, a requisite part of the heroic journey. Scorpio reminds us that the greatest stories bury wisdom in the shadow realms, which for us might look like the painful recognition of shame and guilt and anger and limb-slackening grief and self-betrayal and irrationality and fear of our own irrationality.

But these aspects also help us to contextualize the gifts, the triumphs, the strengths, the redemptive potential that lies beyond the mistakes we are bound to make. The bond into which we entered when our consciousness took human form.

Adventures in Scorpionic healing with (what else?) crystal singing bowls

I went to a yoga class on the night of the New Moon in Scorpio. The class featured a sound bath of crystal singing bowls played by a teacher who invited meditations on death, grief, and regeneration of the decayed in new forms. I do not know whether it was this conceptual set-up that resulted in the following experience, or if it was the singing bowls themselves.

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Detail from photograph of crystal singing bowls from Yoga Journal article, “Why Are Crystal Singing Bowls Everywhere Lately?”

Prior to the sound bath our teacher led us through a slow movement practice. She spoke with a measure of conviction and spiritedness that I somehow found reminiscent of a sea captain leading an exploratory voyage. Yet, for me, there was something disturbingly opaque about where we were headed, the lessons I was supposed to be learning. The greying twilight pressing in on the windows and the rapidly cooling air had me feeling as if we were sailing through a thick fog, with only our breath and our teacher’s clear, bright voice to signal any forward movement.

Near the end of the class, after the light had faded completely, she wound her mallet around the rims of the crystal bowls, and their dull ringing struck eerie, creeping waves in the air that sought my organs and plied them with searching sonic fingers. People in the class started coughing. I could hear doors slamming in the neighboring businesses as the proprietors left. All of the sounds rang violent, far too loud and sudden, a dissonant, erratic jarring against the consistent thrumming of the bowls, whose wavelike intonations I did not quite trust.

Until my teacher sang along, in a low, rich, humming. And then my throat rapidly swelled and threatened to burst and tears filled my eyes. Suddenly I envisioned a lonely, sinuous throbbing thing, a conscious entity without eyes or nose or ears, but keenly sensate, encased in weblike, glistening strands and suspended in the dark, and it might have been my heart. It might have been my life, unseen by anyone but me. Life, simply felt, so intimately and in such solitude that it seems ugly, grotesque, and shameful, but unapologetically so.

She sang, and the beauty of her voice, blended with her crystalline companions in that preternatural harmony, struck me deeply. I found myself clinging to life, to the splendour of hearing, and feeling the sound waves seep into the subdermal parts of myself that felt as distant and as essential as the core of the earth.

I thought crystal bowl sound baths were supposed to be relaxing. But in the foggy, uncharted currents of consciousness which we sailed, our captain had asked us (in words other than the following, by which I am taxing this metaphor beyond its reasonable limits) to scatter to the grey waves the burned-out aspects of ourselves and our external circumstances we could acknowledge had died for us this year, signalling our readiness to release them into the hands of Nature, Venus Genetrix, the resourceful mistress of reformulating the dead into the living.

Crystal bowls are apparently taking the place of Tibetan metal singing bowls in yoga classes. I found a recent Yoga Journal article, wherein makers of crystal bowls claim that these bowls more effectively facilitate the penetration (a word used more than once in this article) of our bodies with sound waves because our bones have a crystalline, as opposed to a metallic structure. Thus, crystal bowls made in Colorado are more healing, more attuned to the human body, than Tibetan prayer bowls. I suspect a case of cultural supersessionism. But maybe this is merely because I could not handle the penetrative healing of the crystal bowls.

Scorpio season: Learning the art of living

Indeed, Scorpio season is a good time to pause in our onward striving, all our work toward future manifestation, to acknowledge the opacity of loss, in terms of the unknown changes it will bring, and the questions, grief, and anxieties it conjures and will never satisfy. The uncanny ways in which loss points to life, goads us with a kind of urgency to live, to attend the wake after the burial.

A year ago I went to a women’s ceremony in celebration of Samhain, the new year in the Celtic tradition, also the time when (as in many other traditions) the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, when we pause to consider the fragility, but the insistent vigor of life as we light candles in the darkness for Samhain, for Día de los Muertos, for Diwali. In a meditation exercise in this ceremony we were invited to consider how we would live if we knew we only has six months. One month. One week.

When the dead leaves seek the earth, it is natural, I suppose, to contemplate these things, to find a space to sit with them in community, to honor their weight without bearing it alone, to find compassion for the uncomfortable, inconsolable depths within us all, to tell stories in the dark that can be cauldrons for all the stewing passions, griefs, and wiles that are big and timeless, and paradoxically, can reside in one body, in one heart.

And to speak in the language of astrology, which continues to rise out of the depths of the “occult”…

At this time of year, I have been rising early, when it is still dark, to move, to feel my muscles stretch and strive and ache, to feel my lungs expand, my toes flatten themselves against the floor, in honor of those who cannot rise in their bodies anymore. To read and to write a little, to delight in my ability to experience thought, mere consciousness, abilities that we have for such precious time as we live.

But in the interest of emotional equilibrium maybe I’ll give the crystal bowls a decent berth…

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Good questions for Scorpio season:

  • What inner processes of transformation am I undergoing?
  • This year, what has come to a natural, or an unnatural close? Can I bear compassionate witness to my experience of this loss, in my body, and in my heart?
  • What sources of wisdom have I encountered in the midst of the toughest challenges I have faced in the past year?
  • Where does my way feel constricted, my view occluded? Can I wait out the uncertainty until the shadows start to shift and some truth, previously unnoticed, is revealed?
  • How can I honor my ancestors? What qualities do I see in them, and in their stories that inspire me deeply?
  • How might I conduct myself differently when I envision myself as an ancestor, a forerunner of future lives?

And on a slightly lighter level…

What are my favorite folktales, myths, or scary stories to tell in the autumnal season? What aspects of them speak to my experience?

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One of my favorites was always The Ghost-Eye Tree, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, a children’s book whose premise involves a brother and a sister traveling on a last-minute errand to fetch milk for their mother. They must walk to the dairy farmer after dark, and halfway along the road they must pass an old, said-to-be-haunted oak tree, called the Ghost-Eye Tree. The boy narrator of the book tells his reader,

“One dark and windy autumn night when the sun had long gone down, Mama asked my sister and me to take the road to the end of the town to get a bucket of milk. Oooo . . . I dreaded to go . . . I dreaded the tree . . . Why does Mama always choose me when the night is so dark and the mind runs free?”

I love the story because the tree must be suffered, halfway along the path to light and safety, on the way there and back. The boy has a talisman, a hat, which he wears to make him look tough (to himself, really), until the wind takes it and his sister has to run back to find it on the “haunted ground” at the foot of the Ghost Eye Tree. She survives the solo trip for the hat, and chastises her brother for his fearfulness.

When the night is so dark and the mind runs free…

Reminds me of when I was a kid and feared the darkness. I would fall asleep listening to the radio, my talisman of sorts, because I felt comforted by the live broadcast, the knowledge that a DJ was awake and at work, and whose presence over the radio waves could somehow ward off the absorption of the darkness that scared me so much.

I love tales that draw attention to the fearsome stories our minds fashion, stories that illuminate the fragility of the monsters as well as the talismans that ward them off.

Lots to harvest and to steep in contemplative silence this time of year.

Thanks for reading, witnessing, and thinking.

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A few weeks ago I took a photo at the last Full Moon (in Aries) of an autumnal, Ghost-Eye Tree lookalike in my neighborhood.